Author Topic: The history of US National Parks  (Read 101 times)


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The history of US National Parks
« on: April 17, 2021, 11:56:15 pm »

The Mariposa Battalion had come to Yosemite to kill Indians. Yosemite’s Miwok tribes, like many of California’s Native peoples, were obstructing a frenzy of extraction brought on by the Gold Rush. And whatever Bunnell’s fine sentiments about nature, he made his contempt for these “overgrown, vicious children” plain
When the roughly 200 men of the Mariposa Battalion marched into Yosemite, armed with rifles, they did not find the Miwok eager for battle. While the Miwok hid, the militiamen sought to starve them into submission by burning their food stores, souring the valley’s air with the smell of scorched acorns. On one particularly bloody day, some of the men came upon an inhabited village outside the valley, surprising the Miwok there. They used embers from the tribe’s own campfires to set the wigwams aflame and shot at the villagers indiscriminately as they fled, murdering 23 of them. By the time the militia’s campaign ended, many of the Miwok who survived had been driven from Yosemite, their homeland for millennia, and forced onto reservations.

Thirty-nine years later, Yosemite became the fifth national park.
Many of the landscapes that became national parks had been shaped by Native peoples for millennia. Forests on the Eastern Seaboard looked plentiful to white settlers because American Indians had strategically burned them to increase the amount of forage for moose and deer and woodland caribou. Yosemite Valley’s sublime landscape was likewise tended by Native peoples; the acorns that fed the Miwok came from black oaks long cultivated by the tribe. The idea of a virgin American wilderness—an Eden untouched by humans and devoid of sin—is an illusion.

The national parks are sometimes called “America’s best idea,” and there is much to recommend them. They are indeed awesome places, worthy of reverence and preservation, as Native Americans like me would be the first to tell you. But all of them were founded on land that was once ours, and many were created only after we were removed, forcibly, sometimes by an invading army and other times following a treaty we’d signed under duress. When describing the simultaneous creation of the parks and Native American reservations, the Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Black Elk noted darkly that the United States “made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller.”

Many of the negotiations that enabled the creation of these islands took place in English (to the disadvantage of the tribes), when the tribes faced annihilation or had been weakened by disease or starvation (to the disadvantage of the tribes), or with bad faith on the part of the government (to the disadvantage of the tribes). The treaties that resulted, according to the U.S. Constitution, are the “supreme Law of the Land.” Yet even despite their cruel terms, few were honored. Native American claims and rights were ignored or chipped away.
When Yellowstone was established, the Plains Wars were raging all around the park’s borders. It was as though the government paused mid-murder to plant a tree in the victims’ backyard. The Dakota War had erupted 10 years earlier, just east of the Great Plains. By the time it was over, dozens of Dakota had been hanged, and more than 1,600 women, children, and elders had been sent to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling. Eventually, all of the treaties between the Eastern Dakota and the U.S. government were “abrogated and annulled.”

In 1864, on the Plains’ opposite edge, at Sand Creek in Colorado Territory, Colonel John Chivington massacred and mutilated as many as 500 Native Americans. In 1868, just four years before the creation of Yellowstone, Native Americans, led by Red Cloud, fought the U.S. government to a standstill, then forced concessions from the Americans at the treaty table, though these, too, were eventually unmade.

War came to Yellowstone itself in 1877. Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce had been shut out of their homeland in the Wallowa Valley and embarked on a 1,500-mile journey that would end just south of the Canadian border, where they would surrender to the U.S. Army. The Nez Perce did their best to avoid white people on their way. But they were attacked on the banks of the Big Hole River, in August 1877, by soldiers in Colonel John Gibbon’s command. Gibbon’s men approached the camp on foot at dawn, killing a man during their advance. Then they began firing into the tepees of the sleeping Nez Perce, killing men, women, and children. The Nez Perce counterattacked. Their warriors kept Gibbon’s soldiers pinned down while the others escaped. Although they defended themselves well, they lost at least 60 people.

Reeling from these deaths, the Nez Perce passed into Yellowstone, where they ran into tourists from Radersburg, Montana, enjoying the “pleasuring-ground” created at the expense of Indians.
America’s national parks comprise only a small fraction of the land stolen from Native Americans, but they loom large in the broader story of our dispossession. Most of the major national parks are in the western United States. So, too, are most Native American tribes, owing to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which attempted to eject all tribes east of the Mississippi to what was then Indian Territory. The reservation period likewise began, for the most part, in the West, in the mid-19th century.

Even after we were relegated to reservations, the betrayals continued. Beginning in 1887, the Dawes Act (also known as the General Allotment Act) split much of the reservations up into small parcels of land to be granted to individual Indians, while the “surplus” communal land was opened for white settlement. In blunt terms, Thomas Morgan, the commissioner of Indian affairs, said in 1890 that the goal of federal policy at the time was “to break up reservations, destroy tribal relations, settle Indians upon their own homesteads, incorporate them into the national life, and deal with them not as nations or tribes or bands, but as individual citizens.” This land grab bled at least another 90 million acres away from the tribes—roughly equivalent to the 85 million acres that comprise America’s 423 national-park sites.
Not long after a harsh winter that killed as many as 600 Blackfeet, the tribe signed away land that would become Glacier National Park. The deal was brokered by George Bird Grinnell, the naturalist founder of the Audubon Society of New York. Grinnell had joined George Armstrong Custer on his expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 in search of gold. The trip was in direct violation of the treaty guaranteeing that the Black Hills would remain in Native control. Grinnell was often called a “friend of the Indian,” but he once wrote that Natives have “the mind of a child in the body of an adult.” In 1911, a year after Congress approved the creation of Glacier, Montana ceded jurisdiction of the park to the U.S. government.

So many of the parks owe their existence to heists like these. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, in Wisconsin, was created out of Ojibwe homelands; the Havasupai lost much of their land when Grand Canyon National Park was established; the creation of Olympic National Park, in Washington, prevented Quinault tribal members from exercising their treaty rights within its boundaries; and Everglades National Park was created on Seminole land that the tribe depended on for food. The list goes on.
Roosevelt’s attitude toward Indians is manifest in his treatment of the Apache leader Geronimo. Born in 1829, Geronimo lived the first three decades of his life in the peace and security of his Apache homelands, in what is now New Mexico and Arizona. In the second half of the 19th century, he rose to international fame for fighting the American and Mexican governments in an attempt to preserve his tribe’s piece of the Southwest.
Geronimo was shipped east and spent the rest of his life in captivity, and his tribe’s land was whittled away. Around the same time, Native children were also being shipped away from their homelands, to government-sponsored boarding schools—removed from their families and their culture so as to mainstream them. Attendance was sometimes mandated by law and sometimes coerced, but it was rarely strictly voluntary. For speaking in their own language, the children were sometimes beaten or had soap put in their mouths. Of the 112 Apache children from Geronimo’s band sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Pennsylvania, 36 died—most of them likely from tuberculosis—and were buried there.

For his part, Geronimo did get out (under guard) once in a while, including a stint in 1904 as part of the “Apache Village” at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where he was made to play the role of the savage. In 1905, he and other Native leaders were asked to be part of Roosevelt’s inaugural parade.
Geronimo met with Roosevelt afterward. “Take the ropes from our hands,” he begged, in a desperate appeal to be allowed to return, along with other Apache prisoners, to his homeland. Roosevelt declined, telling him, “You killed many of my people; you burned villages.” Geronimo began to gesture and yell but was cut off. Four years later, he died in captivity at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

In 1903, Roosevelt had let himself be drawn back west. In April of that year he embarked on a 14,000-mile train journey that took him through 24 states and territories in nine weeks. He traveled to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and California, where he enjoyed a three-night camping trip with John Muir.

Along the way, Roosevelt gave speeches—at the Grand Canyon; at Yellowstone, where he laid the cornerstone for the Roosevelt Arch; near some redwoods in Santa Cruz. He said much about the majesty of nature. Regarding the Grand Canyon: “I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country—to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is … I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon.” And Yellowstone: “The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world, so far as I know … The scheme of its preservation is noteworthy in its essential democracy … This Park was created, and is now administered, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”


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